Life is a challenge. And if you operate a commercial refrigeration business, some days you feel as if you've lived a dozen lives in a 24-hour period. There's little margin for error, and much to consider when maintaining refrigeration systems that are essential to human health and safety, and around which are swirling many significant issues.
The low and medium temperature world is influenced by customer quests for the utmost in efficiency. Service is becoming more often based on true customer/contractor partnerships for the long run into a somewhat uncertain future. Technology requires technicians to be learning something new every day. Refrigerants are held up to constant review, and energy is on everyone's mind.
ContractingBusiness.com spoke to leading-edge contractors and manufacturers to learn the major influences shaping the commercial refrigeration industry’s service and technology sectors in the coming years.
Technicians and Technology
You make or break your business in the field. Therefore, you can't be without quality technicians, insists Stan Shumbo, vice president and co-owner, Eastern Refrigeration Co., Colchester, CT. Its specialties include supermarket refrigeration.
"Your technicians must be up to speed on new technologies, from computer systems to new refrigerants. Second, there must be good communications between service technicians, dispatchers, and service managers. Their ability to communicate well is critical."
Shumbo says high-efficiency equipment is having the greatest impact on training and the industry as a whole. This includes super-efficient variable speed fan motors, and stretching the efficiency of coils, display cases, and walk-in coolers.
"Everything today is computer driven. We're seeing electronic expansion valves (EEVs) becoming standard," Shumbo says. Reducing refrigerant charges by adopting new configurations is also becoming an essential knowledge base. Next comes the secondary technology, which is helping to get refrigerant out of the system, using secondary coolant such as glycol or carbon dioxide (CO2) to reduce the refrigerant charge and streamline carbon footprints.
Today, constant technology refresher courses are paired with a need to be aware of customer relations. In the supermarket realm, the bosses have gotten bigger.
"Looking across the broad base of my customers, I see that most used to be independently owned. Now, 80% to 85% of those stores are corporate-owned," Shumbo says. "You don't have the same one-on-one relationship. You interact with a manager, but they're not the 'owner.' That's the biggest change I've seen. My role is simplified when I can show my capability, and build rapport. Your expertise makes their job easier."
Specialized Contractors Must be Nimble
J.R. Hutchinson is vice president of technical operations for ISI Commercial Refrigeration, Dallas, TX. From three regional offices, ISI installs and services commercial freezers and refrigerators for hospitals, hotels, restaurants, and cafeterias across the state. Hutchinson has also seen lots of change in three decades of experience. Like Shumbo, he also sees ownership consolidation.
"Thirty years ago, the industry was populated by many small, independent companies working on relatively few pieces of complex equipment. Now, we see fewer small companies replaced by larger, specialized companies," he says. "Equipment, too, is more specialized and computerized. Energy restrictions are in play, driven by standards established in California. Refrigeration equipment has become substantially more sophisticated, very quickly."
In order to survive, Hutchinson says, small, less nimble companies must adopt new methods and technologies.
European Influence, U.S. Ingenuity Shaping Future
"Global" is an important concept to remember as we move forward. While it may not be all that palatable, European methods are encroaching on the way U.S. companies perform.
"Europe is on the forefront, as far as regulating hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) out of use, as are South America and Australia," says Robert Delventura, vice president of global innovations, Heatcraft Refrigeration Products, Stone Mountain, GA.
Delventura says Heatcraft engineers are helping contractors as they wrestle with terms such as, "Life Cycle Climate Performance" (LCCP), which refers to a balance between efficiency and global warming potential (GWP).
"We want to optimize the energy efficiency of a system as well as its environmental impact," Delventura says. Much of the refrigerant research and development activity in Europe is related to CO2 cascade systems.
"In Australia and Europe, they're experimenting with a cascade system that will use R-134A on the high side, and CO2 on the low side. That keeps the CO2 from going transcritical," Delventura says.
"Cascade systems are used in U.S. One of the differences in working with CO2 in summer conditions is that it will go transcritical unless you cascade it, which means you can't condense it," he explains. "You need a gas cooler instead of a condenser, but that creates inefficiencies. So, to get around that, you'll see a cascade system that uses CO2 on the low side. You'll have the benefits of CO2 and its low very GWP, without the inefficiencies of going transcritical."
Bill Almquist, president, Almcoe Refrigeration, Dallas, TX, and the 2009 Contracting Business Commercial Refrigeration Contractor of the Year, believes large direct expansion racks with heat exchangers and a secondary fluid of glycol/water are the next big trends in medium temperature refrigeration.
"These systems minimize refrigerant charge and installation costs (ABS piping is used for secondary fluid). The first cost might be higher, but cost of ownership is lower due to the smaller refrigerant charges," he says. "Secondary fluid leaks are relativly inexpensive to repair, and the single pump staion is a lower cost than multiple stations."
Sweet Dreams for Customers
And what, perhaps above all else, do harried end-user customers want? A good night's sleep, knowing that their stores' systems are up-to-date, compliant with regulations, and as energy effcient as possible. It comes down to you, the contractor, and your initiative.
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"When a store manager goes to bed at night, he doesn't want to be worrying about the refrigeration system failing," Delventura says. "He wants a quality contractor who knows how to troubleshoot, maintains equipment well, and gives a heads-up when a new preventive maintenance method is available to reduce repairs. Contractors are a valuable link in the chain."
Commercial refrigeration today is anything but mundane. It's filled with promise for contractors who want to succeed and grow. Those contractors will continue to be valued links in the chain, as they continue to keep in step with new developments, rather than resist them..
Technology in Action
Emerson's Technology in Action Conference, held in spring of this year, brought supermarket managers and contractors together to review key factors influencing store operations. Emerson experts and guest speakers addressed issues such as the future of refrigerants, and system design.
Variable Frequency Drive Product Manager, Alex Harvey, said VFDs, especially when used in air handlers, reduce energy demand by more than 50% have rapid paybacks when applied to supermarket HVAC systems. They reduce maintenance costs, and are high quality, reliable, mature technology products. Harvey said a VFD will save the most energy when the existing system has only bypass control; the existing motor is operating at near nameplate amps; the motor runs 24/7/365; and reduced flow is required for a large percentage of time.
Rajan Rajendran, director of applications engineering, provided a thorough examination of refrigerants available to replace R-22.He said R-407A and R-407C are two favorites.
Appal Chintapalli, director of business development and marketing, said efficient equipment, store design, and retrofits are keys to reducing facility costs. Best pratice tools include reducing waste, optimizing performance, and driving business efficiency.
"Contractors can help supermarket customers manage costs by performing complete store assessments." Chintapalli said. Questions to ask include: what are the worst performing fixtures in the store? Are fixtures holding temperature? Is food being kept at the right temperature? What equipment should be replaced? Is the store operating at optimal cost? The answers can be derived from alarm data, temperature sensors, maintenance displays, controller setpoints, compressors, and refrigerant selection.
John Wallace, P.E., director of product management for Emerson Retail Solutions, explored the benefits of maintenance based on actual condition of the equipment. In this new approach,data is collected in real time, fault patterns are identified, and action is defined and carried out.
Perspectives on Change
Stay Cool During R-125 Shortage. There's a global shortage of all types of refrigerants that's affecting most refrigerant manufacturers. In the case of HFCs, it's being caused, in part, by a lack of raw material feedstock. This is particularly true in the case of R-125, a key component in most new blends such as R-410A, R-407C, R-404A, and R-507A. This is happening at a time when R-22 supplies have been phased down by regulatory mandate, and the industry is ramping up its use of replacements, such as R-410A in residential air conditioning, and R-404A in low-temperature refrigeration.
However, the service industry does have some alternatives. The first one is to fully use reclaim services that would allow contractors to recover, clean, and reuse valuable R-22 already in the market. This, in conjunction with a good plan to fix leaks and tighten up systems (among other things), should make existing supplies last a lot longer. A second alternative is to begin using products such as R-427A to replace R-22 in existing equipment. This will keep equipment running at a high level, and free up R-22 that can be used in other systems after it's reclaimed. Please check Arkema's website (arkema.com) for information on how and where to take advantage of our reclaim program.
— Gus Rolotti, director of technical sales and services, Arkema Inc.
Charting a Course. The route to a new energy future is marked by obstacles, risk, and obsurity, but it's not without hope for progress. So the next question for industry is, What can be done? For the private sector perhaps: acknowledge that investment, product development and sales strategy for energy efficiency technology all move forward amid deeply rototed uncertainty. Business action on energy policy wil have the best chance of success if it recognizes the sources of uncertainty and the structure of the ambiguities ahead. Each event will have consequences for itself and most other pieces of the complex puzzle. Decisions on where and how to take action should be reviewed 360 degrees on an ongoing basis.
—John Galyen, president, Danfoss Refrigeration & Air Conditioning danfoss.com
Alternative Refrigerants in Place. The key area of focus for contractors now is the R-22 phaseout and the significant reduction in R-22 supply from 2010 - 2014. Contractors need to take action now, and prepare for this phaseout by getting experience with R-22 alternatives.
DuPont commercialized a new R-22 replacement in Spring 2009, which is called DuPont™ ISCEON® MO99™. We anticipate next generation refrigerants in stationary applications to be widely available closer to a 2020 timeframe. The current HFC's are going to be viable options for many years to come. Visit refrigerants.dupont.com for updates on the development of stationary "next gen" applications and regulatory updates.
— Joyce Wallace, North America Marketing Manager, DuPont Refrigerants.